Difference between builder gel, Polygel and acrylic

Difference between builder gel, polygel and acrylic

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When starting your journey in the nail industry you’ll be faced with the question, what nail systems should you pursue? You can of course get your qualification in more than one nail system and work with all of them, but it is important to know the key differences between the systems so that you know where to start.

The main differences between acrylic nails and all gel nail systems are generally the molecular composition, the method it is applied to the nails, and how it sets onto the nails which influences how long it will last.

Differences between the three nail systems:


Acrylic nails

Builder gel nails

Polygel nails

What does it look like

The polymer comes in powder form in plastic containers.

A liquid gel that comes in a bottle or a small UV protected container.

Putty-like consistency usually comes in a tube container.

Prepping the nails

A primer has to be applied to the natural nails before application.

A bonding agent has to be applied to the natural nails before applying the gel.

A bonding agent has to be applied to the natural nails before applying the gel.

How is it cured

Not curable in a LED/UV lamp. Air dries.

Does not air dry, needs to be cured in a UV/LED lamp. 

Does not air dry, needs to be cured in a UV/LED lamp. 

Sensitivity to elements

Is not UV sensitive but is temperature-sensitive.

Is sensitive to UV light and has to be kept in cold, dry and dark environments.

Is sensitive to UV light and has to be kept in cold, dry and dark environments.


Is very hard and durable but is not very flexible.

Hard builder gel is strong but not as hard as acrylic. It is however more flexible than acrylic.

Combines the strength and durability of acrylic with the flexibility of builder gel.


Can be soaked or filed off.

Some builder gels can be soaked and filed off but others can only be filed off.

Can be soaked or filed off. It is recommended that you don’t file on the natural nails so file the majority of the product and then soak off the remainder of the Polygel like with acrylic.

How long does it last

Can last weeks when applied correctly and if the nails are taken care of.

Can last just as long as acrylic as long as it is taken care of and if the product was applied correctly.

Can last as long as acrylic because of its strength and flexibility. Lasting time mainly depends on nail preparation and the care from the wearer.

Damage to natural nails

Can cause damage to your nails when not taken care of, not applied and removed correctly. Acrylic nails, although durable, should never be used as tools.

Can cause damage to your nails when not taken care of, not applied and removed correctly.

Can cause damage to your nails when not taken care of, not applied and removed correctly. Flexibility and durability work together to create safe long-lasting extensions for your nails


Usually cheaper than gel.

Generally more expensive than acrylic.

More expensive than acrylic and builder gel.

Accompanying products needed

Needs to be used with monomer that has a strong scent.

Needs to be used with a base gel. There is usually little to no odour when working with builder gel.

Needs to be used with a base gel and a slip solution is used to mould the product onto the nails. There is usually little to no odours.

Ease of application

Relatively easy to work with.

Can be quite tricky to work with for beginners.

Is the easiest product to work with as it can be moulded like acrylic but doesn’t set on its own and has to be cured in a UV/LED lamp.

Best suited circumstances

It is used to strengthen and support damaged nails, giving them a chance to grow out properly and prevent further damage.

Used more for flexibility than durability.

More durable than builder gel and more flexible than acrylic.

acrylic at tip of brush

Acrylic nails

Acrylic is a system that is made out of acrylic powder namely the polymer and the liquid needed to apply acrylic namely monomer. It is UV sensitive as its gel counterparts, however, it is temperature sensitive.


To apply acrylic to the nails, everything has to be prepped correctly. This means that the natural nails and/or tips have to be filed lightly to remove any shine, all the dust has to be cleaned from the nails and a primer has to be applied before applying the acrylic. If the nails are not prepped correctly the nails will lift and not last long

Acrylic is applied by dipping an acrylic brush into the monomer and then into the acrylic powder. Mixing the two substances will cause the powder to chemically react to the monomer and to become a putty-like substance. This will allow you to easily apply the acrylic to the nails. Whether you choose to overlay on the natural nails, sculpt the extension, or create 3D acrylic nail embellishments it can all be done with ease once you have sufficient training and experience.

The acrylic will then harden without the need of using any outside force like a LED/UV lamp, therefore it is easier to control and mould. However, it is temperature sensitive and how it is applied and the speed at which it hardens will depend on the temperature. If it is cold the acrylic will run more easily and be generally trickier to work with. It will also take longer to dry and solidify completely.

Read more on how to take care of your nail extensions, where I go over thing like how to avoid nail infections, when to get a fill and more. These are things every nail enthusiast must know.

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How long does acrylic last

Acrylic, when applied correctly can last multiple weeks without problems. Acrylic can be filed and does not have to be removed completely every time. 

Does acrylic damage your natural nails?

There is a common misconception that acrylic damages your nails more than gel, that is however not the case. No product is supposed to damage your natural nails. The only thing that can cause your natural nails to be damaged is by incorrect application of the products or by not removing the acrylic or gel correctly. Acrylic has the potential to damage your nails when not taken care of.

Acrylic is quite hard, and if you bump your nail against something, there will almost always be significant damage to your natural nail bed. Something else that has a likelihood of happening is the acrylic ripping your nail off with it. This can happen when the nail is bumped at the right angle and hard enough. This is why I advise my clients against getting acrylic pedicures, as we are generally rougher with our feet and losing a toenail can occur quite easily.

What topcoat is used with acrylic nails?

Acrylic is a very strong material so a harder topcoat can be used. When using the wrong top coat on gel nails it can cause the nails to crack. I like to use a high-quality gel buff off top coat because this protects the acrylic underneath from discoloration, and if your nails are to come in contact with acetone, it won’t affect the acrylic as a buff off top coat can not be removed using acetone, therefore it leaves the encapsulated acrylic untouched and protected. Just be careful as the extension underneath the nail will still be vulnerable.

How to remove acrylic?

Acrylic is generally a soak-off system which means it has to be removed using acetone. You can file off the product but this can be time-consuming and you run the risk of harming your clients seeing that the product is so hard, it will take longer to file off than gel, therefore, your clients can feel a burning sensation due to over filing.

Soaking has pros and cons, the pros are that it is easy and causes little to no damage to your natural nails because the acrylic will start to crumble and be able to be scraped off without using force. The cons are that acetone dehydrates anything it touches. SO it will leave your skin and nails feeling dry. It is good practice to not soak off the nails too often. I generally do one fill in on a client before soaking off leaving on average about 6 weeks in between each soak-off session.

You can check out an article I wrote on how to remove acrylic nails for more comprehensive information on removing your acrylic nails.

Things that can make acrylic last longer on any type of nails

Some acrylic powders with higher pigmentation like red might discolor the natural nails, this is why I like to make use of a gel rubber base before I apply the acrylic. Not only does this base gel prevent the nails from lifting when dealing with clients that might have oily nails, hormonal problems, etc. but it also protects the natural nail from being stained.

Does Acrylic nails look unnatural compared to gel nails?

Many people will argue that gel is better because acrylic makes your nails look thick and artificial. This is not the case as if acrylic is done correctly it should also look natural and not thick at all. It is not normal to have a thick “blob” of product on your nails. The acrylic at the cuticle area should always be blended in so that there won’t be any texture once it grows out. 

An apex should always be present no matter what type of product you use as simply applying a thin amount of product on to the natural nail, especially if the nails are longer, will not be enough to strengthen your nails. You will likely end up with cracked and broken nails. 

The free edge should be thin and natural-looking, not thick and bulky. If done correctly an average person should not be able to tell the difference between gel or acrylic from simply looking at the nails. 

Does Acrylic have less color variety than gel?

One obvious difference between gel and acrylics are the colors available. Acrylic generally doesn’t have such a wide spectrum of colors available and as you can easily mix gel the possibilities for gel users are endless. Mixing acrylic can be a little more challenging. Nonetheless one can use both gel polish and acrylic together, so looking at the color will not allow you to discern the type of extensions.


Acrylic is generally cheaper than its gel counterparts. 

builder gel

Builder gel nails

Builder gel can generally be decided into two different sections namely hard builder gel and soft builder gel. The most notable difference between the two is that hard builder is overall stronger than soft builder gel. It is advised to use hard builder when doing long nail extensions and sculpting while using soft builder gel when doing overlays on the short natural nail.


The preparation of the natural nails before applying builder gel is relatively the same as with acrylic. The only differences are that you need to add a bonding agent to the natural nails instead of a primer, and it is very important to add a base gel before adding the builder gel to the nails. Just like with the bonding agent, if not builder gel is applied the nails will not last and will start to lift.

Just like with acrylic the gel has to be applied away from the cuticles and sidewalls to prevent lifting from occurring. When using gel polish for nail art or full coverage you can do it in one of two ways, either apply it after you’ve applied the builder gel or apply it before applying builder gel. You can use gel polish similarly with acrylic.

Builder gel is applied by using a gel brush and “floating” the product onto the nail, by starting from the cuticle area and working your way down to the free edge. The patting motion used when doing acrylic nails will not work when doing gel and will only make things harder for you and also cause bubbles to form inside of the gel. It is very important to keep the nails facing down while applying the gel. The nails can also be flipped over for the gel to level itself and create an apex.

gel polish on color swatch
Gel polish

When applying gel polish on top of the filed builder gel or acrylic, it is important to remember to add a coat of base gel before and after applying the gel polish. This will allow the gel polish to adhere to the product properly and to prevent it from chipping. This is why I prefer encapsulating the gel polish with the product rather than applying it on top, as this can cause the nails to look bulky because of all the extra product layered on top.

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Curing builder gel

The gel has to be cured using a UV/LED lamp (read the instructions for each gel container carefully to determine what type of lamp is needed and the curing time). The gel might start to burn as it cures and attaches to the nail, this is why it is important to remove the nails from the lamp before this happens and flipping the hand upside down so that it can cure while levelling. The application of gel is a little more complex than with acrylic.

After curing the nails there will be a sticky residue called the inhibition layer. Wipe it off with some alcohol solution or gel residue wipe off solution before filing. 

How long does builder gel last?

Because acrylic is generally a stronger material than gel, it tends to last longer, however, if your prep work was done correctly and the nails are taken care of, gel nails can last just as long if not longer than acrylic nails. The reason for this is that people with acrylic nails know the nails are strong and hard so are more likely to use the nails for tools and not taking care of them properly.

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How to remove builder gel from your nails?

Some builder gels are buff and soak off while others are just buff off. Generally, hard builder gels are just buff off. So make sure to know how you’ll have to remove the product before buying it. If the product is buff of it will generally be easier to file off than acrylic. It will still take time when using a hand file so it is overall better to invest in an e-file from the get-go no matter if you use acrylic or gel systems. It will shorten your time working on a client and make life easier for you.

What topcoat is used with gel nails?

The type of topcoat used with gel has to be specifically for gel use only. You can’t use a topcoat designed for acrylic nails as, like mentioned before, it will cause the gel to crack and break.

Does builder gel damage your nails?

Just like with acrylic, the amount of damage that is done to your natural nails depend on the way the natural nails were prepped, how the product was removed, and how you care for the gel nails. Builder gel is not as hard and more flexible than acrylic and will therefore not damage your nails as much if you bump them against something. It is however recommended that people with bitten and severely damaged nails use acrylic to protect the natural nail against further damage.


Builder gel is usually a bit more expensive than acrylic.

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polygel application to filed nail

Polygel (Hybrid gel) nails

Hybrid gel or Polygel is a type of gel that mixes some components of both gel and acrylic. It has the strength and the durability that you find when using acrylic and is as flexible as builder gel. 


The preparation for this gel is the same as with builder gel, and it also has a base gel that needs to be applied before application.

What greatly differs between builder gel and Polygel is that polygel has an acrylic-like consistency, which means that while it doesn’t cure without the help of a UV/LED lamp, it doesn’t run like gel and has more of a clay-like texture. To work with polygel you also need to make use of a liquid, called a slip solution. Just like with acrylic the brush will need to be dipped into the liquid to be able to mould and shape the gel onto the nails. 

The brush used for polygel also differs from the ones used for builder gel. It generally has shorter bristles that are tougher and harder to bend. This helps when moulding the polygel as a regular gel brush would make your job harder seeing that the bristles are usually longer and finer. It is also common for the Polygel brush to have a spatula-like extension at the other end, this is for scooping off a bit of the gel for use. Polygel combines the best traits from both systems and is great for people who are just learning. Builder gel can be quite challenging to work with when starting, and with acrylic, one is always nervous because the product sets so fast. With polygel, you can take your time to shape the nail and make it perfect so that you almost won’t have to file on the nail at all.

Polygel can also be used with dual forms. Dual forms are tip-like objects that are used by placing the polygel onto the tip pressing it onto the natural nail and using a nail clip, making sure the free edge looks flush by turning the hand around and flattening it out using a Polygel brush and the slip solution and then curing the nails under a UV/LED lamp. The forms are then removed and the nails filed. This method is great for nail technicians who don’t have a lot of time to do their own nails.

How long does Polygel last?

Seeing that Polygel has the durability of acrylic and the flexibility of builder gel, it is the best of both worlds. It can therefore last quite long if taken care of correctly. How long nails last is also reliant on the way the natural nails were prepped and the product applied.

How to remove Polygel from your nails

Polygel is generally a buff off product, so cannot be soaked off. When the natural nails have been prepped correctly and the product applied in the right way, Polygel nails can last quite long.

Does Polygel damage your nails?

Similar to its counterparts, the damage that Polygel does to your natural nail will depend on the way the nails were prepped, the product applied and if the product was removed correctly. One should also take care of the nails for them to last a long time. Seeing that Polygel is flexible, it will prevent extensive damage to the natural nail if an accident like bumping the extension would occur.


Polygel is the most expensive of the three nail systems.


Overall acrylic and gel nails are similar in how long they last and the damage that can be done to your natural nails. You will have to work with all three and decide what works best for you or decide to specialise in all of them.

Note: it is never a good idea to mix product brands. To prevent the product from lifting, not reacting as it should or causing allergic reactions it is important to pair products from one brand together and sticking with it.

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